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How a Pile of Trash in Boyle Heights Came to Cost Millions of Dollars

 

Over three days recently in Los Angeles County criminal court, business owners and fire, sanitation and environmental safety officials testified about the difficulty of putting out one of the city’s largest ever landfill fires and the cost of cleaning up afterward.

In the end, the court found that Deontay Potter, owner and operator of  Clean Up America, should pay more than $1.4 million to the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation and more than $448,000 to the L.A. Fire Department in restitution. A hearing is set for this month on his ability to pay.

At his trial, Potter often looked like he was part of the legal team, looking up documents, taking notes and giving his lawyer notes. His wife and family members sat in the back row of the court looking on in quiet support.

A 22 million pound, 25-foot pile of construction debris caught fire on Sept. 18, 2016 and smoldered for nearly six weeks, according to court documents. Nearly two years later, drive down Lugo Street, a small dirt road in an industrial section of Boyle Heights, and there is no trace left of the debris. Government officials estimated the cost of the cleanup at $2.5 million to $5 million.

"I wish it would have never happened," Potter said in an interview months before the restitution hearing.

In March 2018 Potter pleaded no contest to 10 counts of state and local code violations, but his sentencing won’t end his legal battles. The city has sued Potter and Mike Meraz, who runs Magnum Properties, which leased him the property where Clean Up America operated. Potter, a 47-year-old African-American small business owner also has filed a complaint with the city and its sanitation bureau claiming discrimination.

For more than 20 years, Clean Up America, a recycling and trash hauling company in Los Angeles, hauled debris from construction projects. As the company grew, it expanded at the Lugo Street location in 2013, and eventually took over the entire lot.  

Donny Potter in court
Deontay Potter at the restitution hearing for Clean Up Ameria, March 27, 2018 | Lata Pandya

"For a while there in 2013, it looked like he was doing the right thing," said Meraz.

According to the lawsuit, in 2014 Clean Up America submitted a facility plan and was granted a permit to accept up to 174 tons of debris per day and maintain a maximum of 1,401 tons at the facility. But the city Certificate of Occupancy for the site covered manufacturing. According to the LA Department of Building and Safety, Potter started but never completed the process to get the proper certificate.

The process is confusing to explain: The permit came from the Local Enforcement Agency, which is part of the state waste management department CalRecycle. The agency is housed in the Department of Building and Safety, but has no jurisdiction over local land use issues. According to city building and safety officials, the agency did not have to check for the local certificate prior to giving Clean Up America a permit. The Local Enforcement Agency representative who oversaw the Clean Up America property, David Thompson, declined to comment for this story.

Officials inspected Potter’s operation monthly and did not note "areas of concern" until July 2015. By the next month, he was cited for violations regarding the stability of the piles and volume of trash. State inspection reports showed the heap grew to a height of 30 feet and was deemed  "unstable."

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"Handling" of Council Members

As the pile was getting bigger in 2015, Meraz said he started getting official notices. Neighbors were complaining,” Meraz said. In August of that year, Clean Up America entered its first “action plan” to start recycling and removing the debris in a timely fashion and maintain the piles to protect public health and safety.

Emails obtained by SoCal Connected show that for 11 days in September 2015, Potter was decertified by the City of Los Angeles. But despite his violations, Potter landed a contract for debris hauling with Los Angeles City General Services, which paid Clean Up America more than $22,000 over a year’s time.

As the trash piled up and bankruptcy loomed, Potter began reaching out for help. Emails obtained via public records requests show Potter reached out to African-American politicians and extended his pleas to Los Angeles City Hall for help, contacting Councilman José Huizar, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Council President Herb Wesson and local business owners, including prominent developer and family friend Danny Bakewell Jr.

In a November 2015 email obtained by SoCal Connected, a Clean Up America employee asks Bakewell to "handle" his council members. Bakewell goes on to email Wesson’s chief of staff, Deron Williams. "As you know Clean Up America is a valuable asset in the City and I hope that Herb can assist in making sure that the city does not operate in a punitive way with them and more importantly works from a position of assistance to help keep a small African American business operating and afloat."

Screengrab of Clean Up America staff email to Danny Bakewell
Clean Up America staff email to Danny Bakewell from November of 2015. SoCal Connected highlighted these documents and redacted personal emails.

Bakewell did not respond to a request for comment.

Potter explained that he and Williams had met in the 1990s through the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, a civil rights group. In subsequent emails, Williams writes on behalf of Potter, helping him set up meetings with Los Angeles City Sanitation Bureau Assistant Director Alex Helou and working to help him get into compliance.

"He was the only one that said, 'Hey, this guy needs some help,' and they got extensions for me to try and get myself back on track," said Potter.

In emails from 2016, Bureau of Sanitation employees warned one another that Potter uses "political connections" and "political pressure" to reduce or waive fees attached to late quarterly reports. Thompson of the state enforcement agency also alluded in a deposition to “political pressure."

Lorena Valdez emails Alex Helou from Bureau of Sanitation regarding Clean Up America
Email from Lorena Valdez to Alex Helou of Bureau of Sanitation which discusses Deontay Potter potentially using political connections to reduce fees. SoCal Connected highlighted these documents.

Potter makes no apologies for reaching out to politicians for help.

"People get help all the time. They only helped me with extensions of time. I needed help financially,” explained Potter.

Williams did not respond to requests for comment. Representatives for the Bureau of Sanitation said Helou could not comment because of ongoing litigation.

Screengrabs of Lorena Valdez email to Alex Helou at Bureau of Sanitation
Lorena Valdez' email to Alex Helou of Bureau of Sanitation from January of 2016 discusses potential political pressure. SoCal Connected highlighted these documents and redacted personal emails. 
Deposition of Dave Thompson of Local Enforcement Agency
Deposition of Dave Thompson, CalRecycle's Local Enforcement Agency representative, who oversaw Clean Up America is questioned in on March 29, 2017. 

To view more of the deposition click here.

Extensions continue as violations pile up

 
Meraz said most people don’t get that kind of assistance.
 
"I don't know where this good customer service is from the city of L.A. I don't see it. And everybody here pays a lot of tax and fees, and it's just getting worse and worse," said Meraz.
 
While the City of Los Angeles was helping Potter get extensions, the Local Enforcement Agency was continuing to cite him for violations. It enforcement procedures emphasize deterrence. So even when CalRecycle put Clean Up America on its list of facilities that fail to meet state minimum standards, in April 2016, Potter had 90 days to get into compliance.
 
Potter submitted a second action plan, but finally in August 2016 the Local Enforcement Agency advised it would be issuing a cease and desist order.
 
A few months later the landfill caught fire.  
 
According to court documents, the "mountain of trash left no room for fire access lanes." And there was a failure to comply with fire department orders to assist in fire suppression efforts, including getting equipment to reduce the pile and capturing runoff water contaminated with high levels of E. coli bacteria.

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